THE GOVERNMENT have been pushing for the public acceptance of its flagship Animal Welfare Bill via a series of carefully orchestrated press reports. Some newspapers have incorrectly interpreted this as a ‘Bill of Rights’ for animals, although when the AWB consultation findings were announced as far back as April 2002, the Government made it clear that the AWB would not be a ‘Bill of Rights’ for animals.
What is clear is that pet animals are to be given five ‘freedoms’ under the Bill that aims to raise the standards of welfare by fining or jailing owners who neglect their animals.
The freedoms include appropriate diet, suitable living conditions, companionship or solitude as appropriate, monitoring for abnormal behaviour and protection from pain, suffering, injury and disease.
As previously reported, the AWB received its Second Reading last month and is currently being considered by a Standing Committee. The Bill will then return to the Commons for its Third Reading, then to the Lords. It is expected to clear Parliament in the next few months and creates a new offence of deliberately neglecting the welfare of a pet.
Owners could be fined up to £5,000 or given a prison sentence if a pet is kept in such a way that will inevitably lead to suffering in the future. This is a significant shift from existing law, where action can only be taken against an owner if an animal is suffering.
Once the Bill becomes law, secondary legislation could be introduced creating codes of conduct for different types of pet. An 18-page ‘Cat Code’ has been drawn up as an example.
A spokesman for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs denied that the Bill was another example of the nanny state and said the codes would be advisory.
"It won't be a case of people breaking the door down because the dog missed its meal," he said. "The vast majority of owners and animal-keepers in this country are totally responsible and will not notice this law."
Defra already has farm animal codes that do not lay down laws but advise owners on good practice and conditions for their animals. Owners cannot be prosecuted for not complying with a code, but the codes may be used to assist in determining whether or not an offence has been committed.
"The Bill is about ensuring pet owners understand that they have a duty of care towards their charges," said the spokesman. "It is aimed at the few who do not understand or care about the welfare of their animals."
The new offence will be enforced by local authority inspectors or police and does not give extra powers to the RSPCA, as was feared by many observers.
However, the thorny question of funding the extra work falling to local authorities and the police does not appear to have been addressed. A similar situation arose last year with the Cleaner Neighbourhoods Bill which saw responsibility for stray dogs taken from police and given fully to local authorities, However, no agreement on funding the LA’s extra duties for running a 24 hour dog warden service was agreed and implementation of this part of the Bill has been delayed until October 2006, or even April 2007. A similar situation could, conceivably, occur with the implementation of the AWB.
Defra says the Bill is the most significant animal welfare legislation for nearly a century.